18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

We don't know about you, but the circles we tend to hang out in are not folks that are really comfortable with the hard line Christians that want to follow all the rules in scripture as they are written. And we also do not often hang out with folks that credit God with killing our enemies and such. We tend to spend time with folks that talk a lot about reading these instances of scripture through the lens of culture and context. Certainly we are not attempting to explain away all rules or all of the ugly parts of scripture, but we are attempting (we think) to be faithful to the time, place, culture, and context in which the people lived that wrote the stories / laws / poetry / history / etc that we hold so dear.

And no matter how much we might want to ignore or explain away difficult moments in the scriptural story or the hard to follow rules and guidelines, that does not stop them from being there. We still need to look at them and struggle with them and find out what it is they say to us and how they move and motivate our lives. This week's lectionary readings are full of these "uncomfortable" pieces of scripture.

We start with the story of the first Passover. Today we (especially we Christians that celebrate this day) have adapted it and made it in to a fairly distant remembrance. The initiating event was actually the 10th plague visited on the Egyptians in an attempt to get the Israelites released from the land of Egypt. After polluted rivers, frogs, mosquitoes, flies, dying cattle, festering boils, damaging hail, locusts, and dense darkness, the Egyptians still needed some "persuading" and so God (Yahweh) said that the first born of every family (that was not on the side of the Israelites) would be killed. In the section we read for this week, we find some fairly explicit directions for what Moses and his people were to do to avoid being effected by this plague. There is so much detail and importance here they are almost like directions for building a bomb. These are directions / rules / guidelines these folks followed to the letter. And this was necessary so God would not kill the first born in each of their families. Again, it was not simply by virtue of these folks being children of Israel that they were spared the damage of this final plague, it was dependant on them following the guidelines and rules God set out for them.

Next we find the Psalm of praise (149) that begins with some of the normal praising of God and reveling in the relationship of God to the people and the protection by God of the people. Then there is a dramatic turn in verse 6. "Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgement decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones." Do you know anyone who sings this type of song in their Sunday morning worship today? What did this mean to those who first sang these songs? One of the purposes of the written Psalms was to create unifying worship for Jews scattered after the Babylonian exile. These words may have been a great comfort to people beleaguered and oppressed and scattered through the lands given their recent history and experience.

Then in Paul's letter to the church in Rome, we find more and more instruction that may or may not be comfortable for any of us to follow. In the first part of chapter 13 Paul explains what each follower's responsibility is to the State or Civil authorities. This is certainly something for us as followers of Christ to grapple with as we head toward election season this November. But that is not this week's reading. This week he focuses on how each of us can completely fulfill all of the law by following the command to "Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." This is another specific injunction that we find in the scripture and it seems to be a message that runs counter to the one we find in Exodus. How do we reconcile a situation like this? Is it our responsibility to love our neighbor and God will punish or exile or kill those God finds deserving?

One might think that is true, but we see in the Matthew passage that we (at least it was true for the disciples....does that mean it is true for us?) are to tell someone when they have done wrong and confront them and "bind" or "loose" (also translated as "forbid" and "permit") certain things here on this earth. This passage is in a series of sayings on humility and forgiveness that Jesus was offering to the disciples. Right after this particular passage about binding and loosing we find Peter asking Jesus how often we should forgive someone. There is a difference between forbidding something (creating a "law") and then forgiving a transgression once the law has been broken and based on this passage, both are recommended by Jesus to the disciples.

We got just a little haunted as we read these passages. In each instance, why were the rules written down, and by whom? If the Bible is the inerrant word of God (and we are not arguing for or against this), why were there so many variations in the rules? It is possible that each of these writings was really one person's (perhaps inspired) description of the history that brought them to the point at which they began recording. It was possibly their way of interpreting what had happened or what was happening around them, certainly with an eye toward survival or growth or justification. But that doesn't mean that we get to throw them out as "a point in time." We have to grapple with what they mean to us today and how we live within our own set of "rules" or guidelines for behavior and survival and growth and success. As followers of Christ that sometimes refer to ourselves as "people of the Book", how do we orient ourselves to these laws?

As humans, we need boundaries and we want to see lots of black and white. But surely God isn't that limited? And yet, we can't be a ruleless society. We can't succumb to the idea of relativism or lack of truth, can we? But if we were to follow all the laws found in scripture most of us would have been stoned to death by now. It brings us to a tough spot about our humanness and God's divinity that is difficult to grasp. And yet, we can pray for guidance and inspiration and truth. And then be available to discern God's direction for the next step in our lives and live into that.

+Where do rules come from in our current context?
+What rules are timeless? Why? How are they communicated in our community? in our families?

There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them; a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
What advantage has the worker from his toil?
I have considered the task which God has appointed for men to be busied about.
He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into their hearts, without men's ever discovering, from beginning to end, the work which God has done.
I recognized that there is nothing better than to be glad and to do well during life.
For every man, moreover, to eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of all his labor is a gift of God.
I recognized that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it, or taking from it. Thus has God done that he may be revered.
What now is has already been; what is to be, already is; and God restores what would otherwise be displaced.
And still under the sun in the judgment place I saw wickedness, and in the seat of justice, iniquity.
And I said to myself, both the just and the wicked God will judge, since there is a time for every affair and on every work a judgment.
I said to myself: As for the children of men, it is God's way of testing them and of showing that they are in themselves like beasts.
For the lot of man and of beast is one lot; the one dies as well as the other. Both have the same life-breath, and man has no advantage over the beast; but all is vanity.
Both go to the same place; both were made from the dust, and to the dust they both return.
Who knows if the life-breath of the children of men goes upward and the life-breath of beasts goes earthward?
And I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to rejoice in his work; for this is his lot. Who will let him see what is to come after him?

-Ecclesiastes 3

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